March conference empowers young women

Author: Kara Smith
Source:  NYSUT Communications
nysut women
Caption: L-R: Stephanie Eberhard-Holgerson, Bayport-Bluepoint TA; Rahana Schmalacker, Central Islip T; and JoJo Lopez, Middle Island TA.

Nearly 40 teen and pre-teen girls learned about financial literacy, self-defense, achieving professional success in male-dominated fields and a host of other topics at the “Young Women’s Empowerment Conference,” held in early March at the William Floyd Middle School in Suffolk County on Long Island.

The conference was the first large-scale event held by Learn and Lead, a girl’s leadership club for Patchogue Medford-area students in grades 6–12. NYSUT Women's Committee member Rahana Schmalacker and her daughter Lena Schmalacker started the group last year after Rahana attended a women’s committee meeting. A committee goal was forming empowerment groups for school-age girls to explore issues like fairness, safety, equity, access and representation.

The Schmalackers and Learn and Lead partnered with Caitlyn's Vision, a not-for-profit founded by William Floyd student Caitlyn Michiels to help children and families suffering from vision impairment and blindness, to stage the event.

“It was awesome!” said Rahana Schmalacker, Central Islip Teachers Association, of the conference. “Geraldine Hart, Suffolk County’s first female police commissioner, spoke and had my favorite message of the day for the girls ‘you’re gonna fall down, but you’re gonna get back up.’”

Lisa Macko, a female carpenter Schmalacker met at a summer workshop hosted by the United Association for Labor Education, spoke about the challenges of working in a male-dominated field. “Connecting with women from lots of other unions really opened my eyes to the on-the-job challenges they face that I don’t,” said Schmalacker noting that something as basic as bathroom facilities can be challenging for women on an outdoor worksite.

Students attend the Young Women’s Empowerment Conference.

Several NYSUT members also lent their expertise. Certified personal trainer JoJo Lopez, a Middle Island TA member, led a self-defense workshop. Central Islip TA member Gina Cramer, a Central Islip High School social worker, discussed healthy relationships. Fellow NYSUT Women’s Committee member Stephanie Eberhard-Holgerson, Bayport-Bluepoint TA, helped facilitate the event.

Two of Learn and Lead’s biggest conference achievements were creating a new award and setting the wheels in motion for their next big event. One Learn and Lead member interested in finance is planning a future financial literacy event in partnership with a presenter she met at the conference. Group members also created a “When There are Nine” award to honor female-led school clubs in the Patchogue Medford-area.

“Lena talked with some students and learned that a local Jr. Honor Society chapter has all female officers,” said Schmalacker explaining that members decided to give certificates to such clubs to highlight the importance of diversity. “The award name is a nod to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s response to being asked when will there be ‘enough’ female justices on the Supreme Court.”

Other conference highlights included resume writing and CPR and first aid workshops, and a giveaway of two books by Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala and Malala My Story of Standing Up for Girls’ Rights.

“One of the coolest parts of this conference is that although it wasn’t strictly a union event, it came together because of union women,” said Schmalacker of her fellow NYSUT members; speaker Lisa Macko, a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America; and fellow event organizer and CSEA member, Kimberly Swicicki, Caitlyn Michiels’ mother.  

The Young Women’s Empowerment Conference was funded in part through a NYSUT Mosaics of Sisterhood Grant. The NYSUT Women’s Committee created the grants in 2019 thanks to a donation from retired NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. The grants fund short-term projects, women’s committee startups or professional learning opportunities that move the women’s agenda forward.

For more information about the NYSUT Womens Committee, visit